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Surgeon General Nominee Murthy Loses Support Of Key Backers

Dr. Vivek Murthy (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

Dr. Vivek Murthy (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

One of the country’s leading medical journals is withdrawing support for a Brigham and Women’s Hospital physician nominated by President Obama to become the next surgeon general.

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) endorsed Vivek Murthy in May, but an editorial published Wednesday withdraws that support.

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E-Cigarette Debate: 7,000 Flavors Of Addiction, But What Health Risks?

I’m not young or edgy enough to hang out with anyone who smokes e-cigarettes, but I’ve been vaguely aware that they’re a big and growing thing, and the focus of a big and growing controversy. To wit: Do they end up a net positive, because they help people quit the classic “cancer sticks,” or a net negative, because they act as “gateway” cigarettes just when we’ve finally beaten our smoking rates down?

Answer: We don’t know yet. That’s my takeaway from a major multimedia project on electronic cigarettes on Boston University’s new research website. But it’s such an important question that it’s even a source of debate between prominent researchers on campus — though both strongly concur that more research is needed. From “Behind The Vapor:”

At Boston University, Avrum Spira, a pulmonary care physician and School of Medicine associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and bioinformatics who studies genomics and lung cancer, was one of the first scientists to receive funding from the FDA to investigate the health effects of e-cigarettes. “In theor y—- and how they’re marketed — e-cigarettes are a safer product because they don’t have tobacco, which has known carcinogens,” Spira says. “The question is: does safer mean safe?”

(From the Boston University video)

(From the Boston University video)

Across BU’s Medical Campus from Spira, Michael Siegel, a physician and professor of community health sciences at the School of Public Health, has emerged as perhaps the country’s most high-profile public health advocate for e-cigarettes. Siegel, who is not currently researching e-cigarettes, says he believes that the device could potentially help large numbers of smokers quit, or drastically decrease, a habit that is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the US. He points out that despite all the existing smoking cessation products on the market, only a small fraction of cigarette smokers manage to quit. Only 4 to 7 percent break the habit without some nicotine replacement or medication, according to the American Cancer Society. At the same time, Siegel says, more research is needed on the health effects of e-cigarettes as well as their effectiveness in helping people quit smoking.

Check out the full project here, including the video above, “7,000 Flavors of Addiction.” And while you’re on the new website, a couple of other particularly grabby features: The Secret’s In The Spit (the gluten-saliva link — who knew?) and The Secret Life of Neutrinos.

Reality Check: How People Catch Ebola, And How They Don’t

Dr. Elke Muhlberger (Courtesy of Kalman Zabarsky for BU Photography)

Dr. Elke Muhlberger (Courtesy of Kalman Zabarsky for BU Photography)

It’s confusing. You hear that Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan was so contagious that two Dallas nurses in protective gear caught the virus. But then you hear, in more recent days, that apparently nobody else did, including the inner circle who lived with him and cared for him. The CDC announced today that all of Mr. Duncan’s “community contacts” have completed their 21-day monitoring period without developing Ebola.

How to understand that? And how to address alarmists’ claims that for the nurses and so many West Africans to have caught Ebola, it must have gone “airborne”?

I turned to Dr. Elke Muhlberger, an Ebola expert long intimate with the virus — through more than 20 years of Ebola research that included two pregnancies. (I must say I find this the ultimate antidote for the fear generated by the nurses’ infections: A researcher so confident in the power of taking the right precautions that she had no fear — and rightly so, it turned out — for her babies-to-be.)

Dr. Muhlberger is an associate professor of micriobiology at Boston University and director of the Biomolecule Production Core at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (widely referred to as the NEIDL, pronounced “needle”) at Boston University. Our conversation, lightly edited:

Is it really true you worked on Ebola through two pregnancies?

Yes, but in the proper protective gear. That makes a huge difference, if you’re protected, if you know how to protect yourself, and that is the case in a Biosafety Level 4 lab, of course. If you compare the protective gear we’re wearing in a Biosafety Level 4 lab and the gear they’re wearing in West Africa now treating patients, it’s like comparing a stainless steel vault to a cardboard box.

But on the other hand, if you look at the nurses in Dallas, you say, ‘How did they get infected?’ It makes you worry that maybe protective gear isn’t good enough — but you’re proof of the opposite.

A Biosafety Level 4 lab is such a high-end lab, it is not possible to use protective gear like that in every hospital in the U.S.

Could you please lay out a brief primer on the biology of how Ebola is transmitted?

We know from previous outbreaks, and also from the current outbreak, that Ebola is transmitted by having very close contact to infected patients. So we know that it is transmitted by bodily fluids, which include blood, first of all — because the amount of virus in the blood is very, very high, especially at late stages of infection — but it’s also spread by vomit, by sputum, by feces, by urine and by other bodily fluids.

The reason for that is that at late stages of infection, the Ebola virus affects almost all our organs — it causes a systemic infection. One main organ targeted by Ebola virus is the liver, and that could be one of the reasons that we see these very high concentrations of viral particles in the blood. But I would like to emphasize that that occurs late in infection.

Early infection is the other way around. The primary targets — the first cells that come in contact with Ebola virus and get infected — are cells that are part of our immune system. And these cells most likely spread the virus throughout our body. But there are not so many cells infected at the very beginning of the infection, which might be the reason why Ebola virus patients do not spread virus at the very beginning of infection. And that’s why it’s safe to have contact with these patients, because the viral titers in their blood are so low that we cannot even detect them with methods like PCR, which is one of the methods we use to diagnose Ebola virus.

Is a virus only contagious when it reaches a certain level of “titer” or load? Continue reading

Ebola Tipping Point? Dispelling Myths And, Possibly, Less Hysteria Over Virus

A World Health Organization worker trains nurses on how to use Ebola protective gear in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP)

A World Health Organization worker trains nurses on how to use Ebola protective gear in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (AP)

Has the national hysteria over Ebola peaked? Who knows. Maybe. There seem to be fewer front page headlines screaming about it; a new national poll finds most Americans are “positive” about the response by public health authorities; and today’s news is that more than 40 Dallas residents (all who had been in contact with the Liberian man who died of Ebola) were declared virus-free.

Still, education is the antidote to hysteria, so it’s worth reiterating some of the facts. Many of them can be found in this must-read commentary in the London Review of Books by Paul Farmer, the rock star Harvard infectious disease doctor and leading advocate for global health equity in the world’s most impoverished regions. Farmer, who is also a co-founder of the Boston non-profit Partners in Health, writes that despite some of the truly scary aspects of the virus, an Ebola diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence:

The Ebola virus is terrifying because it infects most of those who care for the afflicted and kills most of those who fall ill: at least, that’s the received wisdom. But it isn’t clear that the received wisdom is right….

…the fact is that weak health systems, not unprecedented virulence or a previously unknown mode of transmission, are to blame for Ebola’s rapid spread. Weak health systems are also to blame for the high case-fatality rates in the current pandemic, which is caused by the Zaire strain of the virus. The obverse of this fact – and it is a fact – is the welcome news that the spread of the disease can be stopped by linking better infection control (to protect the uninfected) to improved clinical care (to save the afflicted). An Ebola diagnosis need not be a death sentence. Here’s my assertion as an infectious disease specialist: if patients are promptly diagnosed and receive aggressive supportive care – including fluid resuscitation, electrolyte replacement and blood products – the great majority, as many as 90 per cent, should survive.

And he adds this:

I’ve been asked more than once what the formula for effective action against Ebola might be. It’s often those reluctant to invest in a comprehensive model of prevention and care for the poor who ask for ready-made solutions. What’s the ‘model’ or the ‘minimum basic package’? What are the ‘metrics’ to evaluate ‘cost-effectiveness’? The desire for simple solutions and for proof of a high ‘return on investment’ will be encountered by anyone aiming to deliver comprehensive services (which will necessarily include both prevention and care, all too often pitted against each other) to the poor. Anyone whose metrics or proof are judged wanting is likely to receive a cool reception, even though the Ebola crisis should serve as an object lesson and rebuke to those who tolerate anaemic state funding of, or even cutbacks in, public health and healthcare delivery. Without staff, stuff, space and systems, nothing can be done.

If you want to become more educated on Ebola and find out what you can do to support the global effort, Partners In Health/Engage and Harvard are sponsoring an Ebola teach-in Wednesday night in Cambridge with a panel of practitioners and public health experts. Continue reading

The True Cost Of A Mother’s Death: Calculating The Toll On Children

A health worker interviews a client at a health care facility in Tharaka, Kenya. (Photo: Family Care International)

A health worker interviews a client at a health care facility in Tharaka, Kenya. (Photo: Family Care International)

By Emily Maistrellis
Guest contributor

Walif was only 16 and his younger sister, Nassim, just 11 when their mother died in childbirth in Butajira, Ethiopia.

Both Walif and Nassim had been promising students, especially Walif, who had hoped to score high on the national civil service exam after completing secondary school. But following the death of their mother, their father left them to go live with a second wife in the countryside. Walif dropped out of school to care for his younger siblings, as did Nassim and two other sisters, who had taken jobs as house girls in Addis Ababa and Saudi Arabia.

Nassim was married at 15, to a man for whom she bore no affection, so that she would no longer be an economic burden to the family. By the age of 17, she already had her first child. Seven years after his mother died, Walif was still caring for his younger siblings, piecing together odd jobs to pay for their food, although he could not afford the school fees.

In all, with one maternal death, four children’s lives were derailed, not just emotionally but economically.

More than 1,000 miles away, in the rural Nyanza province of Kenya, a woman in the prime of her life died while giving birth to her seventh child, leaving a void that her surviving husband struggled to fill. He juggled tending the family farm, maintaining his household, raising his children and keeping his languishing newborn son alive.

But he didn’t know how to feed his son, so he gave him cow’s milk mixed with water. At three months old, the baby was severely malnourished. A local health worker visited the father and showed him how to feed and care for the baby. That visit saved the baby’s life.

As these stories illustrate, the impact of a woman’s death in pregnancy or childbirth goes far beyond the loss of a woman in her prime, and can cause lasting damage to her children — consequences now documented in new research findings from two groups: Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, and a collaboration among Family Care International, the International Center for Research on Women and the KEMRI-CDC Research Collaboration.

The causes and high number of maternal deaths in Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa, and Kenya — the five countries explored in the research — are well documented, but this is the first time research has catalogued the consequences of those deaths to children, families, and communities.

The studies found stark differences between the wellbeing of children whose mothers did and did not survive childbirth:

• Out of 59 maternal deaths, only 15 infants survived to two months, according to a study in Kenya.
• In Tanzania, researchers found that most newborn orphans weren’t breastfed. Fathers rarely provided emotional or financial support to their children following a maternal death, affecting their nutrition, health care, and education.
• Across the settings studied, children were called upon to help fill a mother’s role within the household following her death, which often led to their dropping out of school to take on difficult farm and household tasks beyond their age and abilities.

How to use these new research findings to advocate for greater international investment in women’s health?

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Opinion: Why America’s Ebola Fears Are Dangerously Misplaced

Cpl. Zachary Wicker demonstrated the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas on Tuesday. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

Cpl. Zachary Wicker demonstrated the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas on Tuesday. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)

By Richard Knox

At the memorial service last weekend for the only person to have died of Ebola on American soil, the Liberian clergyman who eulogized his countryman Thomas Eric Duncan posed a question we all should be thinking hard about right now.

“Where did Ebola come from to destroy people — to set behind people who were already behind?” Methodist Bishop Arthur F. Kulah wondered.

Here’s the reality: Until the world (and especially the United States of America) refocus on the “people who were already behind” in this battle of virus-versus-humanity, no one can rest easy.

Ebola is an animal virus that has sporadically caused local human outbreaks in Africa for at least 38 years. But now it has crossed into people who live in densely populated African nations with barely functioning health systems and daily jet connections to the rest of the planet.

“It’s like you’re in your room and the house is on fire, and your approach is to put wet towels under the door.”
– World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim

This is entirely predictable, as scientists who watch emerging diseases have long known. They just didn’t know which virus would be the next to terrorize the world. (SARS and HIV showed how it can happen, remember?)

Those of us who, like me, report on global public health have a sense of inevitability as we watch the Ebola crisis unfold. We always knew it would mostly affect, as Bishop Kulah so aptly puts it, “people who were already behind.”

And we knew the people least affected by this scourge — privileged denizens of wealthier countries — would overreact out of misplaced fear for themselves, rather than a reasoned and compassionate understanding about what needs to be done.

So we see the freaked-out, wall-to-wall, feedback-loop media coverage we’re experiencing now. Schools closing down in Ohio for completely unnecessary disinfection. Recriminations against hapless health workers who suddenly find themselves dealing with an exotic new threat. Continue reading

Outbreak On Trial: Who’s To Blame For Bringing Disease Into A Country?

Francina Devariste, 3 years old, is one victim of an ongoing cholera outbreak in Haiti that has killed 8,000 people and sickened over 700,000. (2010 photo courtesy of the United Nations)

Francina Devariste, 3 years old, is one victim of an ongoing cholera outbreak in Haiti that has killed 8,000 people and sickened over 700,000. (2010 photo courtesy of the United Nations)

By Richard Knox

If an international agency introduces a devastating disease to a country, should it be held accountable?

That’s the big question at the heart of a court proceeding that gets underway next Thursday. The international agency is the United Nations. The disease is cholera. And the nation is Haiti.

Four years ago this month, thousands of Haitians downstream from a U.N. peacekeeping encampment began falling ill and dying from cholera, a disease not previously seen in Haiti for at least a century.

Since then cholera has sickened one in every 14 Haitians — more than 700,000 people; and over 8,000 have died. That’s nearly twice the official death count from Ebola in West Africa thus far.

A year ago, a Boston-based human rights group sued the U.N. for bringing cholera to Haiti through infected peacekeeping troops from Nepal, where the disease was circulating at the time. The U.N. camp spilled its sewage directly into a tributary of Haiti’s largest river.

There’s little doubt that the U.N. peacekeepers brought the cholera germ to Haiti. Nor is there argument over the poor sanitary conditions at the U.N. camp.

When I visited the scene in 2012, it was plain how untreated sewage from the camp could easily contaminate the Meille River that runs alongside before it spills into the Artibonite — Haiti’s Mississippi — which provides water for drinking, washing and irrigation for a substantial fraction of the country’s population.

The smoking gun, scientifically, is a molecular analysis of the Haitian cholera bug compared to the Nepalese strain from the same time period. It showed the two differ in only one out of 4 million genetic elements.

“That’s considered an exact match, that they’re the same strain of cholera,” Tufts University environmental engineer Daniele Lantagne told me last year. Continue reading

Don’t Worry, Be Rational: Why Extreme Fear Of Ebola Is Bad For Your Health

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Let’s face it, Ebola is scary. My kids are scared. The moms at school are talking about giving their children extra multi-vitamins to boost their immune systems in a desperate attempt to do something, anything, to protect their families. But we live in Boston and there are no cases here — yet. Still, that “yet” can make us crazy.

So, in a crisis, who do you call for comfort? The level-headed risk perception consultant: David Ropeik, who spoke with me briefly today about why such intense, prolonged worry and anxiety can backfire, make your body weaker and perhaps even damage your health:

Here, edited, is our short interview:

RZ: So, why is being scared of Ebola bad for your health?

DR: The health ramifications of this are profound. When we worry, that, biologically, is stress — that’s a mini fight-or-flight response going on in the body. When stress persists for more than several days (short-term stress is not the problems), it becomes damaging to our health. Chronic stress raises our blood pressure and increases the risk of cardiovascular problems; it suppresses our immune system and makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases or get sicker from them if we do. It interferes with neurotransmitters associated with mood, and it is strongly associated with clinical depression. Chronic stress interferes with digestion and memory and depresses fertility and bone growth (slows it down).

[The negative effects of chronic stress are widely reported, but Ropeik cites the book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," by the biologist Robert Sapolsky, as a key source here.]

So you think people are overreacting and we’re moving into some kind of widespread nation-wide chronic stress phenomenon here?

We’re on the cusp. It’s like what the fear of SARS did to people in Canada — it freaked [them] out for weeks: “Here it comes again,” is what they’re saying.

How do you see all this evolving?

In the last day and a half the criticism of how health officials have handled things and the mistakes they made in Dallas, real as those mistakes are, have become a focus, and it’s now starting to undermine trust in our health care system.

In a crisis, trust is the pivotal factor for how worried people are. Continue reading

Mass. Lawmakers Hear Calls For Ebola Training

As nurses raised alarms that they are untrained and ill equipped to handle cases of Ebola virus, Massachusetts hospital officials said Thursday that the health crisis emerging from West Africa demands a unique response.

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

At a Public Health Committee hearing, Massachusetts General Hospital Emergency Preparedness Chief Dr. Paul Biddinger said handling cases of Ebola is “fundamentally different” than regular medical care, and suggested hospitals should create a “highly trained expert cadre” to handle Ebola rather than attempting to train all staff equally.

Massachusetts has not had a confirmed case of the deadly disease, though there have been suspect cases and two nurses at a Texas hospital have been infected with the disease. Ebola is spread from the fluids of a person who is infected and symptomatic.

Massachusetts Nurses Association President Donna Kelly Williams said the training and equipment at Massachusetts hospitals is “inconsistent,” and nurses have said they have been provided with “flimsy” garments that Williams said would not adequately protect them against infection.

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